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Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown by home gardeners — and for very good reason! The difference in smell, taste and texture between a home-grown tomato and a store-bought one is huge. It might not be an exaggeration to believe that if it wasn’t for the tomato we might not have as many people digging in their vegetable gardens all summer long.
If you have never experienced the feeling of taking a bite out of that first sun-kissed fresh-picked perfectly ripe tomato of the season, well, you are missing out on something very special. In our mind nothing beats that first taste of the season.
If you like tomatoes as much as we obviously do you have found the right place! This article will attempt to distill as much information as we can pack in about growing tomatoes in your own garden.
Tomatoes are available in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes and colors. From the grape-like clusters of cherry tomatoes to the large 1 pound or heavier beefsteak types there is definitely a tomato to suit nearly every taste and garden situation.
Northerners will want to choose early-season varieties that ripen quickly to ensure a quality harvest in a short growing season. Early Girl is a local favorite here in Ohio.
If you live in the deep south or any area where nights are warm and humid you should choose heat tolerant varieties.
Another consideration is how you want to use the fruit. If you want to pick all of it at once, such as for canning, you should choose a determinate variety. Determinate tomatoes tend to be more compact in a bush form and set their fruit over a period of a few weeks.
If you want to pick gradually over the course of the season until the first frost choose an indeterminate variety. Indeterminate tomatoes are vines that grow throughout the season and will need some sort of support.
A final choice is whether to plant hybrid or heirloom varieties. Hybrid tomatoes are the result of a forced cross between two or more parents. Hybrids tend to be very vigorous and are often bred to be disease-resistant. A possible shortcoming of hybrid tomatoes is that they don’t reproduce true from their seed, so you can’t save the seeds and expect to have the same tomatoes next year.
Heirloom tomatoes have been all the rage for the past few years as millions of people rediscover them because of their usually fantastic taste compared to hybrid tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated — meaning you can save the seed and plant it next year and beyond. Heirloom tomatoes often have unusual shapes or tastes that are worth exploring. One heirloom in particular — Brandywine — is widely considered to be the best-tasting tomato. Period. We concur — it is amazing.
One thing is certain about home-grown tomatoes — ANY tomato you grow will taste a million percent better than a tomato you buy at a grocery store. If you have never eaten a homegrown tomato before you will be shocked at how much better they taste. We consider tomatoes to be the best reason to start your own vegetable garden — even if you grow nothing else!
Brandywine — Widely considered to be the best-tasting tomato ever. The leaves are shaped like potato leaves. Fruit is large and pink. Yield is below-average in our experience. Still, the taste is heavenly and should be experienced at least once in your lifetime.
Better Boy — Vigorous hybrid with excellent disease resistances and very good taste. In our area Better Boy does extremely well and we use it as our main crop tomato.
Roma — The classic paste tomato, used for sauces and canning. We planted Roma this year to experiment with making sun-dried tomatoes.
Where to Buy
We purchase our tomato seeds from several different sources. Park Seed and Burpee have good selections and are also an excellent source for pretty much anything else you would care to grow. Tomato Grower’s Supply has a wide selection of hybrid and heirloom tomatoes. Seed Savers Exchange offers an excellent heirloom open-pollinated selection and additionally your purchases support their mission to preserve seed diversity. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Territorial Seed Co. both offer selections of cold-tolerant varieties for northern gardeners.
When to Start
Tomatoes dislike cold, so it is best to start them indoors about 6 weeks prior to your spring frost date. They can safely be transplanted into the garden as soon as the danger of frost has passed — usually a week or two after the frost date. We try to transplant ours as close to the frost date as possible.
How to Start
There are many ways to start seeds indoors. We start them in moist quality potting mix in a corner of our basement. We suspend a fluorescent light fixture about 6 inches above the seed tray and set a timer so it shines about 16 hours a day. The fixture has one warm color temperature bulb and one cool color temperature bulb.
Underneath the tray we use a waterproof heat mat to warm the soil mixture (not strictly necessary but we feel it greatly speeds up the germination process). After all the seeds have germinated we turn off the heating mat. As the seeds grow we move the light higher — always trying to keep it about 6 inches or so from the plants.
We try to start our tomatoes in 4 inch pots. This allows them to grow without a need to transplant until they are ready to go into the garden. As the seedlings grow we simply check them twice a day and make sure the soil is moist. We find it takes maybe 10 minutes a day total to check on them, so it really isn’t a time-consuming chore at all.
Tomatoes (and most garden vegetables) need at least 6 hours a day of full sunlight to be productive. Locating your garden in an area that receives full sun all day is the first step to an abundant harvest.
Prepare your beds a couple weeks before you will set out the plants. Loosen the soil and add compost or other amendments. The better your soil when you plant the less fertilizer you will need during the season. While you are preparing the soil, it is a good time to make sure you have your plant support systems ready too.
About a week to 10 days before you transplant you will need to harden off the young plants. Basically you need to acclimate the plants to the outdoor conditions slowly. The first day set out the trays in a shady spot for a couple hours. The next day leave them out a couple hours longer, and so on. By the time you are ready to plant they should be left outside all day and night unless there will be a frost.
Growing tomatoes need a lot of space. Determinate varieties will need about 2 square feet of space each. Indeterminate varieties need about 3 square feet if caged, and less if staked. We plant our tomatoes about 30 inches apart in a zig-zag row and support them with cages.
The #1 rule of planting tomato plants is to go deep. Roots will grow from all parts of the plant that are underneath the soil. The more roots, the more water and nutrients get to the plant, and the more and better fruit it bears. Dig a deep hole and bury the plant up to at least the lowest set of leaves on the stem. Better yet — strip off the lowest set of leaves and bury the plant even deeper. It will seem odd at first, but the plant will be fine as long as there are at least 6 or so leaves above ground. Fill in and firm the soil and water deeply.
If you can’t dig a deep enough hole you can use the trench method. Dig a shallow trench as long as the plant is tall. Strip off all the leaves on the plant except the top 6 or so. Lay the plant horizontally in the trench and cover it with soil, making sure the leaves are left uncovered. You can pile some soil under the leaves to gently bend the stem upward if you like — but be very careful not to break the stem.
For a week to 10 days after planting we water the seedlings daily to ensure they are settled in properly.
Marigolds are supposed to help control harmful soil nematodes and are considered to be an excellent companion plant for the tomato plant.
If possible rotate your crops and make sure to not grow tomatoes where peppers, eggplants or tomatoes were grown the previous year. These plants belong to the same family so good crop rotation practices minimize the chance of diseases being transmitted from year to year.
Mulching your tomato plants will help the soil retain moisture and will reduce weeds. It is best to mulch as soon as you plant them. Plastic mulch works great if you grow in rows.
Tomatoes need even watering throughout their fruiting cycle to develop the best quality fruit. About 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week should suffice. We like to water about half an inch every other day unless it rains.
Most tomatoes will need some sort of support. Unsupported vines will sprawl out and the fruits tend to rot where they touch the ground, resulting in a lower harvest. If you have plenty of room and spread straw or some other sort of mulch under the vines your yields will improve and it is less labor-intensive than staking or trellising.
We like to support our tomato vines in wire cages. Staking, trellising, and many other support methods will work too. Whatever you choose, make sure it can support the heavy vines and won’t blow over in storms. One hint — those thin wire hoop supports you see at home improvement stores and garden centers in the spring are a waste of money in our opinion. They are very narrow at the ground so they more easily tip in windy conditions. The wire is usually pretty thin so it bends easily under the weight of the loaded tomato plant. And once they bend, they never stand upright again. Use the money you’d waste on these to make your own support or purchase quality tomato cages that will last many seasons.
Tomatoes will send out “suckers” from the joint where two branches meet. Every few days you should pinch off and remove these suckers so they won’t drain energy from fruit production. No other pruning is usually necessary.
If there is a frost warning and you have just planted your tomatoes don’t panic! Simply cover the plants with a tarp, plastic, old sheets, etc. during the night. Make sure you prop up the covering so it doesn’t crush the plants, and remember to remove it during the day.
At the other end of the season, there are a couple ways you can maximize your harvest before a killing frost occurs. If you know your Fall frost date you can cut the top off the tomato vines about 3 or so weeks before that date so the plant will focus it’s energy on ripening the fruit that has already been set.
As the frost date arrives if you find you have a lot of unripe green tomatoes still on the vine try this trick — pull up the entire plant roots and all. Shake off the dirt and hand the plant upside down in your basement/outbuilding/barn/garage — basically anywhere it will be protected from the elements and will not freeze or get too hot. Check daily and over the next week or so the green tomatoes should ripen up just fine and you’ll have an extras week or two of fresh tomatoes to eat!
Tomatoes can grow very well in containers if the right variety is chosen. Stick with cherry/grape tomato varieties for the best results. Some of the determinate varieties can grow well in a larger container such as a half-barrel. The key to growing tomatoes in containers is to make sure they have plenty of water. The soil in containers will dry our much faster than the soil in the garden, so it pays to keep a close watch on it.
When to Harvest
We harvest when the tomatoes are firm and full-colored. Each variety is different, so you will learn how to judge ripeness as you harvest them.
If we are not going to eat the tomatoes right away we often pick them just before they are fully ripe and sit them on our kitchen counter away from the sun for a couple days.
NEVER put a tomato into the refrigerator. We repeat — NEVER, EVER refrigerate a tomato. When tomatoes are cooled below about 50 degrees something happens to them chemically that makes them taste like cardboard. And what other tomatoes taste like cardboard? Grocery store tomatoes! If you refrigerate your beautiful, home-grown tomatoes you are defeating the entire purpose of growing them in the first place! So don’t.
If you need to store a tomato for a few days after picking out it in a cool place out of the direct sun. We leave ours in a shaded corner of our kitchen counter and they last for up to a week. The best place to store a tomato is on the vine. If you can’t pick them all you can let a few of them get overripe and use those later to collect seeds from.
Holes in the leaves are often caused by the hornworm. These can usually be controlled by hand-picking them as you see them.
Holes in the stem are caused by a cutworm. If you see evidence of this you can out a shield around the stem to assist in control.
Soil nematodes can destroy the plant from the roots up. We plant marigolds in with our tomatoes to help control this problem.
Diseases and Other Problems
Fruit splitting is caused by uneven watering. Try to water as evenly and often as possible, and remember to adjust for rainfall totals.
Blossom end rot is characterized by the bottom of the tomato being dark and shriveled. If this occurs your tomato plants are not getting enough water on a regular basis.
If you have a lot of little yellow flowers on your plants but little fruit you are experiencing blossom drop — basically a lack of pollination. Many factors can cause this — high humidity and unseasonable cold snaps are common causes. Tomatoes are self-pollinating which is usually assisted by wind moving the plants. Gently shaking the plants when the flowers appear can help pollination.
Tobacco Mosaic Virus is a common tomato disease. As a precaution it is good practice to not smoke or use tobacco products while around the plants.
When you shop for tomato plants and seeds you may notice some letters such as VFFNT in the description. These letters are abbreviations for common tomato diseases and they denote that the variety is particularly resistant to those diseases. The more letters you see, the more types of diseases that variety is resistant to. The most common abbreviations are:
- V — verticillium wilt
- F — fusarium wilt I
- FF — fusarium wilt I & II
- N — nematodes
- T — tobacco mosaic virus
- A — alternaria
We don’t look for specific disease resistances at Meadowwood Garden because we haven’t had any disease issues so far.
If you want to save your tomato seeds to plant next year there are a couple things you need to take into consideration. Only open-pollinated (often heirloom) varieties will grow back true to form. There is also a chance that the tomatoes can cross-pollinate if they are close together, so if you know beforehand you want to save the seed either plant only one variety or make sure the one you are saving from is distant from other tomato plants.
Saving tomato seed is an interesting (and often pungent) process. Choose a ripe fruit from the healthiest plant you can. Cut the tomato in half and squeeze or scoop the goop (liquid and seeds) into a glass jar or bowl. Add water to cover the goop, cover the container loosely so air can get in and set the container in a warm place out of direct sunlight for a couple days (a windowsill or the top of your refrigerator are good places to start). Once a day stir the goop.
After two or three days a scum will develop on the surface of the container. As this scum ferments it allows the good seeds to separate from the mess and drop to the bottom of the container.
Once you have a nice layer of scum go outside into the garden and pour or scoop out the part that is floating on top. When the big chunks are gone add a little water, stir, and pour off most of the water. Repeat this a few times, always making sure that the heavy seeds on the bottom stay in the container. Soon all you will have left is a batch of clean, healthy seed!
Now for the important drying part. Spread out a coffee filter (never use paper towels) and dump the moist seeds onto it. Spread the seeds out evenly. Label the filter with the date and variety and set it in a warm, dry place that is out of the way. Stir the seeds a couple times a day to promote even drying. It can take up to a week for them to completely dry out.
Once the seeds are dry store them in an airtight glass jar in a cool dry location. Make sure to label the jar. Once dry the seeds can last five years or even more if stored properly!
One last thought — if you have extra seeds consider sharing them with friends and other gardeners. Many varieties we have available today owe their existence to a tradition of sharing over many generations.
Tomatoes are native to South America. The ancestor to the tomato grew in Peru. Over the centuries the seeds were transported to Mexico where they were cultivated domestically by the Aztecs and other civilizations. Sometime around the 1500′s the tomato was introduced to Europe by early explorers of the New World.
An interesting piece of trivia is that a tomato is botanically a fruit (a berry to be more specific), but from a cooking standpoint is used more like a vegetable because it isn’t sweet like what we traditionally think of as fruits.
For tariff purposes in 1893 the Supreme Court declared the tomato as a vegetable and as such subject to a duty (there was no duty on fruits). Funny things always happen when lawyers get involved…
Tomatoes are in the Nightshade family which also includes peppers, eggplant, potatoes, tobacco and a poisonous plant called belladonna. Tomato fruits are not poisonous, but the stems and leaves contain compounds that should not be eaten.
Ideas for Use
Nothing defines the home vegetable gardening experience for us better than picking a tomato and sinking our teeth into it right there in the garden! It simply doesn’t get any fresher or better-tasting than that in our opinion.
A close second is tomatoes and onions with cottage cheese. We would pick this over steak if given a choice.
There are many ways you can preserve tomatoes if you experience a bountiful harvest. Canning tomatoes is a traditional method that comes to mind first. You may can whole tomatoes or make a batch of sauce and can that.
An option we are going to experiment with this year is drying. We are planting some Roma tomatoes with the intention of producing our own sun-dried tomatoes this summer!
Tomato juice and salsas are another excellent use for tomatoes. One of our summertime favorites is to make fresh Pico de gallo using chopped pepper, tomato, onion, cucumber and lime juice with a little cilantro added for taste.
MWG Pico de gallo
Our version of a Pico de gallo. Easy to make, fresh and delicious! Exact measurements are not important — the idea of Pico de gallo is to use what you have on hand. This should be completely drained of liquid and served fresh. Refrigeration will dull the taste.
- Tomato (remove seeds)
- Pepper (Jalapeno is best)
- Lime Juice
Dice approximately equal amounts of tomato, onion and cucumber. Dice a smaller amount of pepper (how much depends on how hot you want it). We often skip the pepper for a no-heat Pico. Mix into a large glass bowl with enough lime juice to get everything wet and add cilantro to taste. Let it sit covered on the counter for a couple hours, then drain off any liquid and dig in with your favorite tortilla chips! Sublime!